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Vibes man

Bobby HutchersonThe last time I saw Bobby Hutcherson, during a short season at Ronnie Scott’s in 2009, I came away convinced that he is the finest living ballad player in all of jazz. It was a Saturday night, the club was packed, and not every member of the audience could have been relied upon to recite the titles of his early Blue Note albums in sequence. Barely seeming to touch the vibes as he spun out glorious melodic variations on “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons”, “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” and other beautiful songs, he held the place in a spellbound silence purely through the beauty of his turn of phrase. A similar subtlety informed his performance of several John Coltrane tunes drawn from his then-current album, titled Wise One — after one of those tunes — and released on the Kind of Blue label.

The ulterior motive for my presence that night was to persuade Hutcherson to talk to me about the trumpeter Dupree Bolton. He was courteously reluctant at first, but eventually gave way and presented me with a long and colourful account of their association back when the vibes man was a teenager and still at school while playing in a band with Bolton, Frank Morgan and Elmo Hope at the It Club in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. When I get around to writing my book about Dupree (a promise to myself, if to no one else), that story will find its way into the public domain.

His playing has always been important to me. Andrew Hill’s Judgment!, on which he played in a quartet completed by Richard Davis and Elvin Jones, is probably my favourite Blue Note album of all. His contributions to Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond and Destination Out!, Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, Grant Green’s Idle Moments and Street of Dreams and his own Happenings — one of the great Sunday-morning albums — and the superlative Oblique, all recorded for that same label in the mid-1960s, are records I wouldn’t be without, largely thanks to him. But almost anything with his name on it, whether he’s stroking the contours of a ballad or feeling his way out on to a musical precipice, has always been worth hearing.

That night when I went to see him at Ronnie’s, emphysema was forcing him to leave the stage every 10 minutes or so to take a hit from his oxygen tank. It had no effect whatsoever on his playing, which was of the very highest quality. He’s 73 now, and the respiratory condition has apparently taken foreign travel off the schedule, but it has not stopped him playing occasional club dates in the US and making some extremely fine records.

The latest of them is called Enjoy the View, and it finds him back home on the revived Blue Note label, under the supervision of its new president, Don Was. Anyone fearful that Was’s background might compromise the jazz content of the label’s new releases can stop worrying now: this album is nothing but jazz, coming from a lovely and completely uncompromised place somewhere between the more adventurous and the more conservative examples of his earlier Blue Note output.

Hutcherson is joined by the organist Joey DeFrancesco, the alto saxophonist Dave Sanborn and the drummer Billy Hart: it’s a line-up from heaven, playing a bunch of originals (by all participants except Hart) which combine fine grooves with the sort of acute melodic and harmonic angles likely to provoke thoughtful improvisers into producing their best work. I can’t really pick out an individual contribution because they’re all exceptional, although perhaps I should say that this is the best I’ve ever heard Sanborn play, and detail inside Hart’s propulsive drumming will astonish those who’ve never listened to him properly.

Recorded at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood by Frank Wolf, the album has a clarity, depth and warmth that, even on CD, evokes the matchless sound Rudy Van Gelder bestowed on all the legendary sessions held for Blue Note at his place in Hackensack and Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: a special quality for which the label became famous.

I read a review in an American publication that awarded this album three stars (out of five) and dismissed it as run-of-the mill-stuff. I can’t buy that. This is a very good Bobby Hutcherson album, which means it’s as good as it gets. Here’s one of the gentler tracks, a Hutcherson composition called “Montara”, so you can decide for yourself.

* The photograph is from the cover of Bobby Hutcherson’s For Sentimental Reasons, released in 2007 on the Kind of Blue label, and was taken by Jimmy Katz.

Love Motown

Love Motown“My Cherie Amour” has never been a favourite song of mine. In terms of the Motown catalogue alone, there are scores, probably hundreds, I think of with greater fondness. But Beverley Skeete and Noel McKoy changed that at the Festival Hall on Saturday night, when the Stevie Wonder chestnut was sung by the duo in a captivatingly elaborate arrangement that featured Gary Crosby’s Jazz Jamaica All-Stars augmented by 15 horns and a dozen strings.

The occasion was a concert titled Love Motown, a follow-up both to Jazz Jamaica’s Motorcity Roots album of 2008 and last year’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Wailers’ Catch a Fire. Like the latter event, it featured the big band — mostly drawn from Crosby’s Tomorrow’s Warriors project — plus the 200-member Voicelab choir, whose enthusiasm was channelled to good effect.

This was not about cover versions. It was about creative reinterpretation through the lens of an Anglo-Caribbean sensibility, using the special qualities of the Jazz Jamaica musicians. So Crosby’s bass and Rod Youngs’ excellent drumming evoked Aston and Carlton Barrett rather than James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin, often jettisoning the factor that distinguished the original — the riff on which Holland, Dozier and Holland built “This Old Heart of Mine”, for example — and setting the song free.

Rubén Blades: time and tango

Ruben BladesRubén Blades is one of the most interesting survivors of the salsa explosion of the 1970s. Born in Panama City in 1948, the son of a Cuban mother and a Colombian father, he moved to New York in his mid-twenties, joining Jerry Masucci’s stable of emerging stars at Fania Records, he had started work in the classic manner, with a job in the company’s mail room.

Barely on the radar at the time I was trying to get a British audience interested in salsa via a couple of Island compilations of Fania material in the mid-’70s, he would soon be enjoying success via collaborations with Larry Harlow, Ray Barretto and Willie Colón, and through regular appearances with the the hugely popular Fania All-Stars. His song “El Cantante”, recorded by the brilliant but ill-fated Hector Lavoe, became a massive hit, and his 1978 album with Colón, Siembra, was for a while the most successful album in the history of salsa, said to have sold 25 million copies.

With a great-uncle who had fought against Spain in Cuba’s war of liberation, Blades’ compositions often displayed a strong political consciousness. In 1984 the A&R people at Elektra Records saw his potential to reach a wider audience. Soon after moving from Fania to his new home he recorded Escenas, with a new band called Seis del Solar, winning a Grammy for best Latin album. There was another one in 1988 for Antecedente, one my favourite albums of that decade.

While making these records he followed up his law degree from the University of Panama with a masters from Harvard. He also pursued an acting career, appearing in Robert Redford’s The Milagro Beanfield War, Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, and several other films. In 1994 he stood for the presidency of Panama, winning 18 per cent of the vote, and 10 years later he served a term as the country’s minister of tourism.

But he never stopped making music, and now he has released a new album, which sees him exploring the music of one of the countries of Latin American with which he does not, so far as I know, have ties of blood. Tangos consists of well known Blades songs recast in the Argentinian idiom by the arranger and conductor Carlos Franzetti, using a variety of means: a group of four bandoneon players accompanied by a string orchestra, a classic tango nuevo quintet (à la Astor Piazzolla), and the City of Prague Symphony Orchestra. 

Familiar pieces such as “Juana Mayo”, “Pablo Pueblo” and “Pedro Navaja” fit perfectly into this new format. “Perhaps these tunes were always tangos,” Franzetti remarks in his brief sleeve note. In some cases, like gorgeous opening “Paula C” and closing “Tiempos”, they gain in drama from the elegant orchestrations, which inspire Blades to a series of exceptional vocal performances, his tone and phrasing beautifully controlled. Almost 80 years after the great Carlos Gardel died in an air crash in Medellín, Rubén Blades unexpectedly presents himself as a thoroughly credible heir.

* The photograph of Rubén Blades is taken from the cover of Tangos and was taken by Vincent Soyez.

Charlie Haden 1937-2014

Charlie HadenThe night before Barack Obama’s first US presidential election, back in November 2008, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra opened a week’s residency at the Blue Note on West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village. It was 40 years since the ensemble had begun its mission of performing politically conscious music, and before the first set began Charlie told the audience about a remark made by Joe Daley, the band’s long-serving tuba player, in the dressing room while they were readying themselves. “If Obama gets elected,” Daley asked Haden, “can we call it day?”

Everyone laughed, not least the band. And when I went back the following night, with Obama’s success assured, the set was infused with a special sense of joy. But there was no question of calling it a day. Six months later most of them were in London, chosen by Ornette Coleman to appear during the Meltdown festival at the Festival Hall, where their numbers were rounded out by Jason Yarde (alto), Andy Grappy (tuba), the incandescent young Shabaka Hutchings (tenor) and Robert Wyatt, who sang Silvio Rodriguez’s “Rabo de Nube” and played cornet on a spellbinding version of Haden’s “Song for Che”, first heard on the band’s self-titled debut album, which is one of the great classics of large-ensemble jazz (or any kind of jazz, for that matter). 

Both in New York and London they concentrated on material from what I guess will turn out to be their final album, 2005’s Not in Our Name, with which they brought their protests home in pieces like Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays and David Bowie’s “This Is Not America”, Ornette’s “Skies of America”, a sardonic treatment of “America the Beautiful”, a wonderful recasting of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings, and Bill Frisell’s “Throughout”, which at the Blue Note featured the tenors of Chris Cheek and the amazing Tony Malaby. As ever, the music was arranged by Carla Bley.

Charlie Haden died on Friday, aged 76. For more than 50 years he was one of the most important musical figures in my life, ever since I first clapped eyes on him as the skinny white kid over on the right hand side of the Lee Friedlander’s photograph on the cover of Ornette’s This Is Our Music. It’s still probably the coolest picture of a group of musicians ever taken, but there was much more it than that. I loved his sound on the double bass, which was dark without being heavy, the resolute economy (probably no great modern bassist played fewer notes) that sometimes gave way to dark strummed solos, and the way he seemed to be able to follow the improvisations of Ornette and Don Cherry so closely despite the absence of formal guidelines. (If you want to know how that happened, read Ethan Iverson’s fascinating 2008 interview with Haden here.)

Mostly, however, it was the sheer weight of emotion he conveyed in every note he played and in everything played by any band he led or with whom he performed. The Atlantic recordings of Ornette’s 1959-60 quartet are up there with Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens and Parker’s Dials and Savoys, of course. But I also loved the way his Quartet West delved into the noir moods of post-war Los Angeles (particularly on Haunted Heart in 1991 and Always Say Goodbye in 1993), his collaborations with pianists such as Paul Bley, Hampton Hawes, Hank Jones, Chris Anderson, Kenny Barron and Keith Jarrett (notably on the recently released Last Dance), and the albums by Old and New Dreams in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

And, of course, there are the Liberation Music Orchestra’s four studio and one live album, essential documents reflecting current and historical liberation struggles in Spain, Central and South America, Portugal and its colonies Mozambique, Angola and Guinea, South Africa and elsewhere. Here were the songs and hymns of the International Brigade, the Sandinistas, the MPLA, the ANC: this was music that mattered, its attention firmly fixed a greater scheme of things. It was an attitude that got Haden arrested by the Portuguese secret police while on tour with Coleman in 1971.

He was unique, absolutely, but he was also completely emblematic of the very best of America’s musical gift to the world. Born in Shenandoah, Iowa, he spent much of his childhood singing country and folk songs with the Haden Family Band, a background he revisited six years ago in Ramblin’ Boy, a well received album that featured his son, Josh, who leads the band Spain, his triplet daughters, Rachel, Petra and Tanya (whose own bluegrass album appeared a few months ago), and many other guests, including Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Jerry Douglas and Bruce Hornsby. From those beginnings he made his way to the leading edge of jazz at a very early age.

He had a wonderful life and a marvellous career, despite health problems that began with childhood polio, and he left so much for us to enjoy and to contemplate. I suppose if any single performance sums him up, it must be his playing on Ornette’s “Ramblin'”, recorded in October 1959 and released the following year on Change of the Century. Haden had just turned 22, and no one had heard anything like it before: the daring combination of harmonically free 4/4 walking and a powerful strumming that seemed to carry the echoes of all sorts of folk music. That combination of sophistication and deep soulfulness turned out to be typical. Thanks, Charlie, for all of it.

Ella and Nelson on Park Lane

Ella with NelsonThirty years ago this month — on July 26, 1984 — I sat down at the next table to Princess Margaret and her entourage in the ballroom of the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane. Not my usual company, but this was a special occasion: Ella Fitzgerald, making what I’m pretty certain was her final appearance in London, with an orchestra conducted by the great arranger Nelson Riddle.

It was a charity gig, the first of three nights in aid of the NSPCC, hence the presence of royalty and courtiers. But it was clearly something not to be missed, since it united two figures of great significance whose work together in the Gershwin Songbook series of albums — five LPs containing 53 songs, recorded over an eight-month period in 1959 for Norman Granz’s Verve label — remains a landmark of the genre and the era.

Ella brought her own first-class rhythm section: Paul Smith (piano), Keter Betts (bass) and Bobby Durham (drums). The rest of the large orchestra was assembled by Johnny Howard, the British saxophonist, bandleader and session contractor. It included Mitch Dalton on guitar and the young saxophonist Jamie Talbot, to whom I’d been listening in the very different environment of Clark Tracey’s hard-bop quintet.

Dalton had recorded with Riddle in London a few months earlier as part of another band put together by Howard for a Decca album called Blue Skies, in which Riddle’s orchestra accompanied the opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa. When I asked him about the gig with Ella, he responded with a lovely anecdote.

“My one abiding memory of the gig,” he told me, “is of rehearsing the overture — Nelson’s arrangement of ‘The Sheik Of Araby’. I was seated right in front of the conductor’s rostrum, no more than three feet from him. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Great Man had not necessarily committed his all to this particular commission, possibly because it might have been a last-minute (and inconvenient) request to provide Ella with an introduction. Anyhow, I was required to play the banjo in cod ’20s style. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a rhythmic feel which fitted the chart. Each time that we played it down I tried a different approach. During my third attempt to create something passable, Mr Riddle leaned across to me and intoned: ‘Ah, I see that you have an excellent ear for shit when you hear it!’ I’m not sure if his poker face and laconic delivery translate well off the page but I’ve never forgotten that phrase. It certainly encapsulates his modesty. An endearing trait in a genius, I find!”

And a genius he certainly was: a genius of popular music. He was aged 64 then, and taking time out from a tour to promote Linda Ronstadt’s What’s New, the first of three hugely successful albums they made together. He and Ella had recorded their final collaborative album, The Best is Yet to Come, two years earlier, for Granz’s last label, Pablo. Fifteen months after the Grosvenor House shows, Riddle would die as a result of problems caused by cirrhosis of the liver. Ella’s long-term health problems were about to become more serious; in and out of hospital throughout her last years, she died in 1996.

At Grosvenor House, aged 67, she was no longer in full command of the powers of vocal expression and agility that had made her such a great artist. But that didn’t seem to matter too much. Although I wasn’t taking notes that night (in those days, before Live Aid, there was a rather civilised convention that charity concerts were not reviewed), I have a clear memory of a wonderful recital, including a particularly lustrous reading of “Blue Moon”. And Princess Margaret, who liked a bit of night life herself, certainly seemed to enjoy it. 

* The photograph of Ella Fitzgerald and Nelson Riddle is by Phil Stern and is taken from September in the Rain, Peter J Levinson’s excellent biography of Riddle, published by Billboard Books in 2001.

The eye (and ear) of Dennis Hopper

EASYRIDER-SPTI-14.tifWhat I remember about hearing “The Weight” for the first time in 1968 was how timeless it sounded, how completely beyond all normal ideas of pop-music chronology. Although it was only just over four and a half minutes long, it somehow appeared to occupy a much more extended time-frame: longer, in a strange but true way, than the extended jams that were all the rage in the parallel universe of blues-rock and psychedelia. And in terms of style, it sounded as though the Band might have begun playing it in the previous century, and could very well continue into the next one.

Taking its place in The Lost Album, an exhibition of Dennis Hopper’s photographs currently on show at the Royal Academy in London, it becomes literally timeless. Hopper’s 400 black and white images — original prints on board, uniform in their modest size, with the tonal warmth and small marks of age that make looking at them like listening to vinyl — are divided between several large rooms, and in the middle comes a change of pace: the spectator stands on what amounts to a balcony, looking across a space on a lower floor at a projection of scenes from Hopper’s Easy Rider on the opposite wall. The accompanying music, configured in an endless loop, is Jaime Robbie Robertson’s masterpiece, seamlessly repeating without end, at least until the exhibition closes.

The song can stand it. You hear it first in the distance, and you want to get closer. When you’ve watched the film montage a couple of times, you move on — and although the music recedes, it won’t go away. To begin with, you wonder why the curator didn’t add a few more songs featured on the Easy Rider soundtrack. Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher”, perhaps, or the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow”. But it’s a clever way of encouraging you to stay long enough to absorb what the exhibition wants you to see, while discouraging you from taking root. (On a second visit, I noticed that the volume had been turned down.)

Hopper was at his best as a photographer when making portraits of artists and art-world people in the early ’60s: there is something assured and definitive about the beautifully composed studies of Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others. His pictures from civil rights demonstrations lack the dynamism other photohgraphers brought to the same subject, or that of his own images from the celebrated Sunset Strip riots of 1967. His abstract images, too, are unexceptional, but there are some nice photographs of hippies in Los Angeles and San Francisco, of Hell’s Angels, of bull fights in Mexico, and of bands: the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane. And it’s always nice to hear “The Weight” again, and again, and again.

* Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is at the Royal Academy, Burlington Gardens, London W1 until October 19. Easy Rider and The Last Movie are regularly screened in full as part of the exhibition.

 

Wardell’s last stand

Moulin Rouge 1In the days when I covered the big fights in Las Vegas, I always tried to persuade the newspaper to let me have a rental car. As budgets tightened, that became increasingly difficult. Why would you need to spend the department’s money when the only essential travel expenditure, apart from the plane ticket, was the price of a taxi to and from McCarran airport? If you were staying at, say, the MGM Grand, and that’s where the fight was being held, then it was a hard argument to make. But the key to getting the best out of Vegas, it always seemed to me, involved possessing the means to get away from it.

Not that I actually disliked the place. Disapproved of it, maybe, but I was always fascinated by the dark history of how a desert truck stop became the fastest growing city in the US. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, I found myself wishing I’d gone to the Mayweather fight, simply to get a Vegas fix. But had I been there, I’d have been itching to get into a car and head as far away from the Strip as newspaper deadlines allowed — perhaps to the Red Rock Canyon state park, or more probably to the Mexican swap-meet on the north-eastern edge of town, out towards Nellis Air Force Base, a giant open-air weekend bazaar where you can buy anything from a cassette of norteño music to a tyre for your earthmover.

I was always a little sad that Vegas’s eye for future profit had led it to blow up the past behind it. I was there just in time to see the old Sands, for example, still in operation; on my next visit, the former Rat Pack playground was just another vacant lot, waiting for redevelopment. That sensational example of ’50s modern resort architecture — slogan: “A Place in the Sun” — was torn down in 1996. It seemed very short-sighted. If they’d been smarter, the city fathers would have preserved one of those old hotels as a living memorial.

Such thoughts were on my mind when I got in the car on a hot afternoon one day about 10 years ago and headed for Vegas’s Westside, the remote black section of town. I was looking for whatever was left of the Moulin Rouge, opened in May 1955 as the town’s only non-segregated casino hotel. This was a time when black entertainers performing on the Strip were barred from staying in the establishments that employed them; famously, after Sammy Davis Jr went for a swim in the pool at the New Frontier, the management had it drained. Not surprisingly, the Moulin Rouge was a great success.  Some of the great stars of the era played there, including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, and among those who headed across town to enjoy the shows and the relaxed ambiance were Frank Sinatra, Tallulah Bankhead, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Gregory Peck. They were greeted by the former world heavyweight champion Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, who had been given a small ownership stake by the project’s white backers.

After six months, however, the place was suddenly closed, overnight, without warning or explanation. The croupiers, the cocktail waitresses and the dancers were paid off. The belief has always been that the Mob didn’t like the idea of customers being drawn away from their places on the Strip, and took appropriate action.

I’d heard that, half a century later, it was still standing, so I drove around the Westside, where some of the streets were still unpaved and the visitor felt a world away from the neat and ever proliferating suburban estates housing most of Vegas’s well heeled incomers. And when I found my way to 900 West Bonanza Road, there it was: the low buildings and its high landmark tower still intact, and most of all the giant neon sign, 60ft high and a classic of its type.

I drove in through a gate in the wire fence, parked the car and approached a group of workmen. They told me that it had been used as welfare apartments for some years, and that it had gone through a period when it was notorious as a kind of crack supermarket. Now, following a bad fire a couple of years earlier, it was almost deserted. The workmen told me that plans were under way for it to be refurbished and reopened, more or less as per its original incarnation.

A few calls confirmed that such optimistic plans did indeed exist. The building had already been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but that turned out to be a meaningless gesture. Further fires, a failed foreclosure sale and pressure from vested interests persuaded the local authorities to issue a demolition permit, and the most significant parts of the property were torn down in 2010. The giant sign, designed by Betty Willis, a local woman, was removed to the city’s Neon Museum, where 150 such relics are preserved.

All this came to mind the other day when an album called Way Out Wardell came through the post. This is a CD reissue, on Ace Records’ Boplicity imprint, of an LP — originally on the Modern label — made up of two recordings from two 1947 concerts, at Pasadena Civic Auditorium and the Shrine in Los Angeles, both featuring the tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray with a couple of all-star groups including Erroll Garner on piano, Howard McGhee on trumpet and Benny Carter on alto saxophone, under the banner of Gene Norman’s “Just Jazz” concert series. It was Carter who, eight years later, was hired as the musical director of the Moulin Rouge, and his big band was the main attraction during the gala launch week.

On the opening night, Wardell Gray was present and correct in the reed section. At 34, born in Oklahoma City but raised in Detroit, and a Los Angeles resident since 1946, he was a player with a substantial reputation. He had made his recording debut in 1944 with Billy Eckstine, appeared on Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” date, and become a favourite sideman of Benny Goodman and Count Basie. The two-part 78 of “The Chase”, his duel with his friend and fellow tenorist Dexter Gordon, a recreation of their marathon battles in the clubs of Central Avenue, had been a hit in 1947. His career stalled a little in the early ’50s, perhaps thanks in part to the acquisition of a heroin habit, but he was still playing clubs and making the occasional record date when he took Carter’s call and headed for Vegas.

On the Moulin Rouge’s second night, however, he didn’t turn up. The band waited, knowing that his habit had rendered him not entirely reliable, but eventually went ahead without him. The next day his body was found in the desert on the outskirts of town. It was assumed that he had died of an overdose, either accidental or administered as a “hot shot” by a dealer to whom he owed money, but the police investigation was cursory at best and no one was ever able to come up with an explanation for marks of blows to his head or exactly how the body might have found its way to its last resting place.

The story was explored at some length back in 1995 in Death of a Tenor Man, one of a series of atmospheric and entertaining crime novels by the American musician and author Bill Moody, whose fictional protagonist is a jazz pianist and amateur detective called Evan Horne. Moody grew up in Southern California but lived for some years in Vegas, where he taught English at the university as well as playing the drums with bands on the Strip, and the local colour is authentic.

So many jazz musicians perished as a direct or indirect result of the heroin plague of the 1950s. Gray’s demise has always seemed one of the most poignant, particularly since the town in which he died was built largely on the laundered profits of a narcotics trade pioneered by the likes of Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, the principal founders of modern Las Vegas. Which is just one of the reasons why I find it hard to warm to the place.

As with Chet Baker, it’s impossible now to assemble the individual components of Gray’s tragedy into a definitive account. So we’ll never know the truth. But Way Out Wardell finds him at full strength, playing for enthusiastic audiences. Maybe this is how he sounded — confident and full of ideas — on that opening night at the Moulin Rouge, before the curtain came down.

Bobby Womack 1944-2014

Bobby WomackBy and large, I love the same Bobby Womack songs as everybody else: “Across 110th Street”, of course, and “I Can Understand It”, “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha”, “Woman’s Gotta Have It”, “I’m in Love”, “(You’re Welcome) Stop on By”, “If You Think You’re Lonely Now”, “Secrets”, “Surprise, Surprise” and so on. But there’s also a kind of secret favourite: a song called “Cousin Henry”, from an album titled Resurrection.

It’s one of those soul songs written in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. Like Curtis Mayfield’s epic “Back to the World”, it opens and closes with the ambient sound of the battlefield, as if the listener is being dragged into a recurring nightmare. It tells the story of a veteran who, on his return home, finds no honour or solace: an individual life twisted and destroyed by history. Womack’s sandpaper baritone is at its most affecting, echoed by Stevie Wonder’s typically melodic harmonica solo. An uncredited banjo frails away in the background, rooting the story in the memory of a different and more innocent world, contrasting with the martial chorus of “Hup-two-three-four” punctuating the verses.

Maybe you know it. If you don’t, it’s here. When I think of Bobby Womack, it’s what runs through my head.

* The portrait of Bobby Womack is from the insert to Resurrection, which was released in 1994 on the Continuum label. The photographer is not credited.

 

Jersey Boys

Four SeasonsThere were only two other people in the cinema when I went to see Jersey Boys this week, a mere five days after its UK opening. Having received reviews ranging from cool to lukewarm, Clint Eastwood’s transfer of the Four Seasons musical from stage to screen has clearly failed to capture the public imagination — unlike the original, which is still running on Broadway and in the West End.

I belong to a generation that didn’t have much time for musicals, generally speaking, but I loved the theatrical version of Jersey Boys when I saw it a couple of years ago. The music sounded as good as the records and the staging was genuinely exhilarating. So the film’s first surprise is that Eastwood hasn’t simply tried to replicate the factors that made the stage show a success: he’s gone for something halfway between a musical and a conventional biopic, which is hard to pull off.

Here are the two main drawbacks: it still feels unmistakeably theatrical, and there’s surprisingly little music. Great trouble has obviously been taken over the design of the costumes, the sets and the props, and the film’s colours and textures are carefully graded to match the period, but it hardly ever feels real. And in an effort, I guess, to avoid the accusation of having simply reproduced a jukebox musical, the director has used the music only when it functions as part of the narrative (e.g. when they’re performing “Sherry” on American Bandstand or Valli makes his comeback, singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” with a big band in a plush nightclub). Unlike Taylor Hackford’s Ray Charles film, Eastwood doesn’t rely on enhanced versions of the original recordings to underdub the actors when the group are seen performing in a club or a theatre: the performances sound as unpolished and sometimes as weedy as they would have done in real life, deprived of the support of session musicians and studio technology. I ended up quite liking that, although I suppose I’d gone in hoping for the sensation of the original mixes of “C’mon Marianne”, “Beggin'”, “Beggars Parade”, “Tell It to the Rain” or “Dawn (Go Away)” thumping out through a cinema sound system.

In its treatment of the group’s early connections to New Jersey mobsters the film is grittier than I remember the stage version being. It’s still hardly Goodfellas, and it frequently lapses into cliché and caricature, but it does have a genuinely outstanding central scene in which the rest of the group discover the extent of the tax and gambling debts they’ve been landed with by Tommy DeVito, their founding member; he is forced out by Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, while Nick Massi quits in disgust. In reality Massi left in 1965, after their first run of chart success, while DeVito’s ousting came six years later, at around the time they were dropped by Philips, when the hits had dried up. But it works in terms of dramatic truth, and the showdown exposes the sort of conflicts that anyone who has ever been in a band, at whatever level, will probably recognise. That scene also highlights the real excellence of the central performances by Vincent Piazza (DeVito), Michael Lomenda (Massi), Erich Bergen (Gaudio) and especially by John Lloyd Young, who delivers a nuanced and mostly sympathetic portrayal of Valli.

After DeVito’s departure, Valli and Gaudio took shared ownership of the group; the fact that they are named as the film’s executive producers probably guarantees a degree of both authenticity and airbrushing. There is no mention of the line-up (featuring the gifted lead singer/drummer Gerry Polci) that joined Valli for the chart rebirth with “Who Loves You”, “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” and “Silver Star” in the mid-70s (and it’s a bit dismaying that the first thing the audiences hears, before the titles, is a pianist infuriatingly misvoicing a vital chord in the great intro to “December 1963″).

If you’re a fan of the group, the film worth catching while it’s still around, which probably won’t be long. It’s hardly Eastwood’s finest hour as a director, and he doesn’t quite find the thing that would compensate for the missing vibrancy of the stage show, but of course it will send you back home to listen to some enduringly great records.

* The photograph of (left to right) Tommy DeVito, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi is taken from the booklet to Jersey Beat: The Music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, compiled by Bill Inglot and released by Rhino in 2007.

 

Parallel voices

parallel  moments  blueFrom the very first notes of “Longing”, the opening track of Parallel Moments, a new album by the saxophonist Raymond MacDonald and the pianist Marilyn Crispell, there’s an awareness that that you’re in the presence of something special. MacDonald’s sound carries such poise and pathos, Crispell’s chords are so sensitively voiced and weighted. The arc of the piece, as they increase the intensity before releasing the tension, is simply perfect. I don’t think I’ve been so moved by the interplay between an alto saxophone and a pianist since Carlos Ward and Carla Bley duetted (with the help of a string quartet) on “Desireless”, from Don Cherry’s Relativity Suite, back in 1973. “Longing” is here, if you want to try it.

Each of the four surfaces of the CD’s mini-gatefold sleeve carries a detail of a painting by MacDonald. The one on the inner spread, as seen above, is my favourite. I like what I imagine to be the symbolism of it: the strokes of cerise and ochre represent the players, while the white is the intangible third element created by their collaboration. But you don’t need to bother with such a clumsy interpretation. It’s my guess that if you respond to the painting in any way, you’ll like the music: a kind of abstract expressionism in search of unobvious beauty.

MacDonald, who is Scottish and lives in Edinburgh, has collaborated with many leading European and American free jazz musicians and writes music for film, theatre and dance. Crispell, who was born in Philadelphia, came to prominence in the groups of Anthony Braxton in the 1970s and has made many noteworthy albums, including Nothing Ever Was, Anyway (ECM, 1997), in which she interpreted the extraordinary compositions of Annette Peacock.

Their collaboration on these 10 pieces, which range in length from under two minutes to 11 minutes, is a thing of constant and unfolding wonder. On a track such as the lengthy “Conversation” they make highly personal adaptations of the sort of instrumental techniques associated with Cecil Taylor and Evan Parker, including bright upper-register splashes of great precision from Crispell and involuted rapid-fire flurries from MacDonald, to create a completely satisfying dialogue. Minimal resources, but a vast scope of emotion — and, pervading the whole album, a rarified and very precious lyricism.

* Parallel Moments is released on the Babel label.

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